By Anne M. Windholz
Today a child screamed and cried in agony as his mother tried to help him go to the bathroom. Out in the hallway, the child life specialist looked at me.
“I’d wait about 15 minutes. He’s been having a hard time.”
A hard time. That’s an understatement.
Diagnosed with lymphoma; undergoing surgery and recovering with bright hopes of going home for his birthday (his 10th!); and then the Sunday before that milestone, curling up on his hospital bed with crushing pain. Kidney stones. And then mouth sores. From the cancer treatments.
He can’t go home. He refuses to eat. He won’t talk. He hardly opens his mouth, because every touch of the lip, every turn of the tongue, is torture. Everything within cracked and ulcerated. I had thought he looked as sad as he could last week.
Until I saw him today. Skinnier. Paler. He sipped two spoons of broth from his mother’s hand before pushing it away. His eyes shone like brittle ice, braced against the pressure of pain.
The intensity of his resistance seemed both instinctive and calculated. He was measuring steps across an icy pond. One wrong move and it would all break apart. If that happened, he might be sucked under and never come up again.
Panic sometimes cries loudest in silence.
His actual screams were terrible, however. Maybe because they were forced from him violently, as much against his will as the relentless emptying of his bowels. The screams of a creature in fear and pain. It struck me as I stood beside his door. I’ve heard those screams before, in the dusk: In South Dakota, when our cat caught and toyed cruelly with a baby bunny. We couldn’t catch the cat quickly enough to save the bunny.
I spent time alone with the boy’s mother. She told me about how her son never laughs any more. About how he doesn’t want to move. And about how he made her cry.
“How?” I asked.
“He wouldn’t talk at all yesterday. He would only whisper. I couldn’t understand him — that felt so awful, forcing him to repeat what he’d said.”
“What was he saying?”
“He told me to get his big sister a present.”
“Yeah, he said she deserved one because she was suffering, too.”
I used to be an English professor. When my own children were quite small, I researched representations of children and child abuse in Victorian children’s literature. Two things struck me as I read evangelical religious tracts and morality tales in which “bad” children suffered horrible, horrible deaths.
The first was that at a time when childhood mortality was ubiquitous and pain relief was hit or miss, a great many children and their parents must have felt that God hated them.
The second was that all those sickeningly sweet childhood deaths in literature, which Dickens probably made most famous with Little Nell, were gross romanticism, offered up as a well-meaning but sentimental sop to comfort bereaved parents — which was practically everyone.
Call me a cynic. I had toddlers with tantrums pooping all over at the time. Plus I was a postmodern academic, and sentiment doesn’t go far with that crowd. So I thought saintly child deaths were all pretty much fiction. Bad fiction.
Fast forward 20 years.
. . . and I’m sitting in the pediatric family lounge with a mom who burst into tears yesterday at the wisdom coming from the wounded mouth of her boy, and I’m crying too. Crying partly because nothing I can do will stop the chill night from coming for this mother, but mostly because the reality is so amazing: Children, so fast at learning languages compared to adults, can equally outstrip adults in learning from suffering. In learning compassion for others.
Somewhere under the sentiment and the claptrap, the idealized Victorian child really was what children have always been: our wisest and best teachers. If we listen. If we are willing to bend down literally and metaphorically and be with them in their pain. Bear it with them. And respect what the poet Wordsworth observed: that these most vulnerable souls come into this world from God, “trailing clouds of glory.”
What I bring to chaplaincy among the children I’m sometimes at a loss to say. But what it brings to me?
The pearl of great price. A millennium of lifetimes would not be enough to repay such a gift.
Anne M. Windholz is a chaplain resident at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL